2006 New Faculty Orientation
Pam Sutton, Professor of English
What do the words “people focused” mean to me?
I believe it means relationships. When we enter the mission field, we develop relationships to share our faith. Likewise, I believe before I can teach content, I must first develop relationships with my students to build a classroom community of learners.
How is “people focused” reflected in my classroom?
People-focused activities in my classroom begin the first day and continue throughout the semester, not only in the classroom but in the hall, in my office, at school events, and even in my home.
On the first day of class, I read the syllabus for the course. As I read the course objectives, grading policies and grading scale, and day-to-day activities and assignments, I observe the wide eyes, especially of the freshman. I then proceed to give “Six Cures for Stress” which serves as an icebreaker but also good advice for the first few weeks of school. (This advice includes doing each of the following daily: get the right amount of sleep, eat five times—three meals and two snacks, do something physical, do something fun, do something social, and spend time alone. I stress that doing each of these daily in moderation reduces stress, but doing any of them in excess may increase stress.)
Probably the most important thing I do is on the second day of class. I play a name game where not only do I learn each student’s name, hometown, and a unique quality, but students also learn those same things about each other. For example, my name is Dr. Sutton, I’m from Magnolia, Arkansas, and something unique about me is . . . . and I name one of the following: I’m a baseball mom, I’m driving my fifth Honda, I’m a klutz on three continents (U.S., China, and Italy), I make coffee nervous, I can say four things in Chinese, etc.
During the semester I’ll get to know my students through their writing, but also through talks in the hall before and after class.
Note: My students will also tell you of my stories (told, of course, when they related to the day’s lesson), stories of my life which reveal that I have a life outside of the classroom. For example, if I were teaching this fall (and not on a research leave), my students would hear the following stories from my summer: I spent 21 days caring for my mom; I traveled to Virginia to watch my older son play a minor league baseball game and give his testimony to a youth group on his 23rd birthday; I rappelled down a 45 foot tower with my younger son who was working at Sharp Top Cove, a Young Life camp in Georgia; and I introduced myself to Tommy Lasorda in a New Orleans’ restaurant. Students especially like stories from my college days such as when I fell out of a chair in the student center my freshman year and when I fell down a flight of stairs my sophomore year.
Stories connect us; they help others see us as part of the same world. After hearing my stories, often students will seek me out in my office to tell me their stories. My office door is open during office hours and sometimes even after office hours are over. Students (and colleagues) know I keep a stash of chocolate in my office and I’m available for free pep talks.
Last year I signed on Facebook after my students told me of this new phenomenon. While I respond to their notes, I do select how much and when I do so. My college son even wrote on my wall using his best sub-standard English to let my students know his sense of humor.
I also try to attend a few activities my students are participating in such as a play, sporting event, recital, variety show, All Sing, etc. Usually these activities allow me to support several students with one attendance, especially the variety show and All Sing.
Last fall when my younger son left for college and I experienced the “empty nest” for the first time, I divided my students into groups of eight and invited them to my home for “Soup with Sutton.” The students enjoyed getting away from campus, sitting around a dining table, and even playing with my dog.
To be honest, during my first year at Union when I was completing a dissertation while I was adjusting to a new city, church, and university and my two teenage sons were making their own adjustments, I did well to survive. As I developed relationships with my students, I quickly learned to discern student needs and student wants regarding my time outside of class, to keep my office door open during office hours but closed during private time for class preparation, and to choose selective school activities to attend and support my students.
True, I was hired to teach. But I believe to teach effectively I must first build relationships so my students know I care about them. Then through my course content I can teach life skills such as communication (written and oral), critical thinking, analysis, and synthesis.
Our Bible verse for this academic year is Colossians 3:14. I believe that building relationships with our students is one way we can “put on Love” and be people focused.